When Adam Jorgensen says he grew up in a South Dakota town of fewer than 1,000 people, he might be overexaggerating the rural community’s population.
“I lived right next to the population sign in kindergarten,” says BJ Olson, preparing to correct his lifelong friend and current business partner. “I can tell you when they had to change it from 199 to 200. So it was a really small town where you could literally stand on Main Street and see the edge of both sides of town.”
Today, Olson still lives in a small South Dakota town, but with a population of more than 3,000, Hartford is a veritable metropolis compared to where Olson and Jorgensen grew up. And with Sioux Falls just 15 miles down the road, Hartford is an easy drive away from the state’s largest city and its 200,000 residents.
In July 2022, Olson and Jorgensen opened Unity Rd., the first state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary in South Dakota after two years of planning, attending meetings, memorizing state and local rules and hunting for the right property.
“Being in the cannabis industry has made me have to think more outside the box than any of my other businesses combined just to be able to exist,” Jorgensen says. “You have to be extremely creative to be in this industry.”
The longtime friends ultimately bought the property on which Unity Rd. now resides even before having a state license or a go-ahead from the city.
“Given the atmosphere we were in, we had to go in with both feet forward,” Olson says. “So Adam and I made the commitment of purchasing the land and starting the building prior to us even having the state license because we were all in, and no matter what, we were going to make it happen. If we didn’t make it happen for ourselves, we were going to have a really beautiful facility to rent to somebody else because, come hell or high water, we were gonna make it happen.”
During the process of finding and acquiring the land, building the facility and securing the state license, Olson says it constantly felt like one step forward, two or three steps back.
“Nothing in my life, business-wise, has been harder than trying to get a dispensary up and running in the state of South Dakota,” he says. “Anybody that successfully enters the industry in South Dakota needs to be applauded, because whether you’re a cultivator, manufacturer or a dispensary, it’s hard work to get those doors open. There’s a lot that goes into that process and a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of tears and heartache. So anybody that gets to that finish line, bravo.”
In November 2022, South Dakota voters rejected Measure 27, a ballot initiative to legalize recreational cannabis that would have likely been a boon for medical marijuana businesses. Jorgensen and Olson spoke with Marijuana Venture about the implications of South Dakota’s election and the landscape of the state’s medical marijuana industry.
Marijuana Venture: What do the 2022 election results mean for South Dakota and the future of cannabis in South Dakota?
Adam Jorgensen: November 8 was certainly another historic political day for South Dakota, but unfortunately, we didn’t see the numbers that we were really looking forward to seeing. But it’s not doom and gloom. This (medical program) is a program that is and will continue to be successful. And I believe that the outcome of Measure 27 is going to drive exponential medical card growth.
BJ Olson: As far as the election results, we were at the point where we just needed something to happen. There was so much in limbo, just because of what happened two years ago when both recreational and medical passed (though the state Supreme Court would later nullify the vote of the people with regards to recreational cannabis). Because of that, I think a lot of people were thinking recreational is automatically going to pass in 2022, so a lot less people came out to vote. I think a lot of people took for granted the opportunity that was in front of them.
The one positive thing I can say out of Measure 27 being done and over with is it gives us direction as owner-operators. We know what we need to do now to succeed. There’s no more waiting for recreational to be approved this year or even next. It’s another two years before it can even be put back on the ballot. So Adam and I get the opportunity to really execute on everything that we’ve built thus far.
MV: Can medical cannabis businesses survive in South Dakota with a relatively sparse population and a limited percentage of people being able to get a medical card to access dispensary products?
Jorgensen: That’s a fair question. We feel strongly positioned in the South Dakota medical cannabis market, and we feel overall that the South Dakota medical cannabis market will be successful. But the election result is going to change plans for some players in the industry. For BJ and I, having a single, non-vertically integrated store, this doesn’t change the plan that we’ve put in place for the last two years. Now, we simply execute, and we move forward. And with the continued card growth that we’re seeing week over week, I feel we’re going to be successful.
We have the opportunity now to set the bar high in the industry, to prove to the society that this is a positive when the program is managed and done right. This is something that can be a point of pride, a good thing for the state and a good thing for the cities that the dispensaries operate in.
Olson: The advantage we have is our doors are already open. We had our foot on the gas from the moment we decided we were going to do this, and it took a lot of hard work to get there. There are 167 dispensary licenses approved in the state of South Dakota. I don’t see all of them opening because there aren’t enough patients to go around. For instance, if we get to a point where we have 16,000 patients, that’s 100 patients per dispensary. That’s not feasible. That doesn’t work as a business model.
MV: Can you talk about your decision to partner with the Unity Rd. franchise, as opposed to creating your own brand from scratch?
Jorgensen: Yeah. In the earlier days of planning, when BJ and I made the commitment that we were going to pursue a career in the cannabis industry, we started learning about the complexities of what it takes to craft a business plan, what it takes to understand the rules and regulations and what it takes to design an efficient, functioning dispensary. There are a lot of complexities that if you don’t know, you don’t know.
It’s been a positive a positive journey, having Unity Rd.’s collective experience and their expertise to help from start to finish. I kind of look at them as the scissor that helped us cut the red tape.
Unity Rd. can be thanked for every step along the way. And it’s not just help before opening. It’s before, during and after. Unity Rd. is involved daily, helping us ensure that we are setting the bar high both from a physical appearance and operational standpoint, but equally important and maybe more important, helping us maintain our compliance with the state.
MV: What are your expectations for your shop in 2023?
Jorgensen: My prediction coming into 2023 is that we’re going to continue to see substantial week-over-week growth. I think we’re going to see current tribal supporters making the switch from a tribal card to a state card, allowing some different points of purchase that may be more geographically convenient. I see Unity Rd. maintaining the same level of support in 2023 that they’re providing today, where I see Unity Rd. really making a difference for us in brand awareness. As an aggressively growing national franchise, their success is our success and vice versa.
When somebody sees the golden arches, they know there are cheeseburgers waiting. I want to get to the point where when somebody sees a Unity Rd. sign, they know what’s down the road.
I think the future looks bright, so I’m going to put my shades on and pass it over to BJ.
Olson: Yeah, the future looks bright. I mean, our Type A personalities won’t have it any other way. Adam gives me crap all the time saying that I float on clouds and I’m a magical unicorn because I always look at the bright side. But yeah, we’re gonna do just fine. The medical program is gonna grow in South Dakota and in two years, I feel recreational will be back on the ballot. And hopefully we can change the perception of cannabis over the next two years to get a different outcome next time.
MV: Do you feel a bit of extra responsibility to change the stigma surrounding cannabis? Since the adult-use bill didn’t pass, you guys and other medical marijuana businesses are kind of the face of cannabis in South Dakota for at least the next two years.
Jorgensen: Absolutely, we do. That’s our mission for the next two years, to really drive home not only do we get recognized for being the first one in the state, but we want to get recognized for being the best one in the state.
We’re going to continually work to educate the public on what cannabis is. People don’t need to be afraid of cannabis. This is a great quote I got from a patient: ‘Marijuana is not a gateway drug. It is the illegal drug dealers that provide the gateway to other drugs.’
I want to preach that from on high for the next two years. And I think it should be preached on high nationally because it’s absolutely true. I don’t have meth, I don’t have fentanyl. I don’t have cocaine in my dispensary. Just 100% organic marijuana. People need to realize that drug problems are drug problems. Marijuana is not the issue. Marijuana is a medicine.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.